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Staff Picks: Movies

When the Period Piece Ruled

Merchant Ivory Productions (director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant) was a leading force in the popularizing of period dramas, often centered around British characters and typically adapted from canonized, literature (Henry James, E.M. Forster, Edward Albee, Kazuo Ishiguro e.g.) during the late 1980's and early 1990's. By the mid-90's the quality of their productions began to decline as interest in the lives of repressed, stuffy British folk fell out of fashion. As The Criterion Collection prepares for the release of a newly restored version of A Room with a View, cultural Anglophiles can access the best of their productions by checking out, Howards End, The Remains of the Day, Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, and Maurice.

The Magnificent Ambersons

After watching the illuminating and highly entertaining documentary Magician: the astonishing life and work of Orson Welles, a film timely released to celebrate the centennial birth of the incomparable genius behind the 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, I thought it compulsory to sing the praises of Kane’s 1943 follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons—just one of many of Welles’ films shrouded in controversy and legend. After the success of Kane, Welles decided again to focus on a rise and fall motif, this time concentrating on the decline of an entire Midwestern family’s fortune and standing as pride, generational conflict and ideological stasis erodes family unity. It’s a great film as it stands but there are many Welles purists who would argue that the “real” work has yet to be seen. After completing a rough cut of the film, Welles departed to Brazil in order to work on a wartime film called It’s All True. While overseas, RKO Radio Pictures (the studio) took over production of the film, including re-cutting the original and shooting additional scenes against the protestation of Welles. It has been argued that the Welles cut differs dramatically with the studio version, including the ending of the film and overall tone.

Mad Men(1)

The AMC drama Mad Men's final season will be released in less than a month and so be sure to catch up on this series that explores the cultural and personal inner workings of the advertising industry from the late 50's to the early 1970's. Actor Jon Hamm was awarded the Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama last night, a fitting tribute to a dynamic show that featured flawed but lovable characters journeying through their personal crises along side the broader, evolving social landscape that saw the rise and decline of the counter-culture and the ascent of the mass media and the power of marketing.

The Score, the Color, the Romance

While it was his inspired Chungking Express that put the career of Wong Kar-wai on the cultural map, it was his masterful work In the Mood for Love (2000) that cemented his reputation as a major director. The film tells the story of a repressed romance between two married neighbors who discover a secret about their spouses. Visually sumptuous in its use of costume, lighting and color, the style and setting of early 1960’s Hong Kong is perfectly expressed. Never has the unspoken feelings of characters burdened by desire and longing been so poetically depicted. Propelled onward by a reoccurring musical score that encapsulates the film’s themes and images, In the Mood for Love has been deemed one of the 50 best films ever made by Sight and Sound magazine.

Great Music in Great Movies

After re-watching the wonderful film The Deep Blue Sea, I did a little digging around to find out the name of the evocative music played throughout the film. British director Terence Davies, whose films prominently feature music to wonderful effect, chose as the emotional centerpiece of this harrowing film about the cost of unrequited love, the second movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. This got me thinking about some of my all-time favorite film scores and those pieces of music that bring so much to a movie’s overall impact. Here is a sampling:

• Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings featured in Platoon and The Elephant Man
Georges Delerue’s theme (Pierre et Nicole) for Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin
• The theme from A Very Long Engagement by Angelo Badalamenti
• The elegiac Cavatina from the 1978 Oscar Winner The Deer Hunter
• The haunting theme from Schindler’s List, composed by Itzhak Perlman
• Philip Glass’ music from the film The Hours
John Tavener’s The Lamb, featured throughout The Great Beauty
• Debussy’s Claire de Lune featured in the romantic film Frankie and Johnny
• Georges Delerue’s Theme of Camille featured in both the film Contempt and Casino
• Yann Tiersen’s score for Goodbye Lenin

Bottle Rocket

Today Wes Anderson is considered one of the most original and inventive directors working who is beloved by the critics while also commercially successful. So singular are his works that even the casual observer would likely recognize his stylistic flare, thematic tropes and continual collaboration with particular writers and actors (parodies of his films are commonplace). Like most first works, Bottle Rocket shows a great deal of promise but lacks some of the visual panache and flamboyant use of color and mise en scene that gives his later films such vitality and depth. Yet, it's still an accomplished work with lovable but flawed characters journeying through their need for love or family by way of a bumbled heist.

Far from the Madding Crowd

One of this year’s finest works of cinema is a rare accomplishment, a book to film adaptation that sees the updated version live up to the acclaim of the classic novel by British writer Thomas Hardy. Actress Carey Mulligan’s performance and director Thomas Vinterberg’s deft treatment of the material breathes fresh life into Hardy’s 19th Century tale of a headstrong woman’s proto-feminist inclination to play the field on her terms as she is pursued by three very different suitors. Vinterberg’s expressive use of color and striking rural photography makes this luminous work register as much visually as it does emotionally. Mulligan’s charming performance as Bathsheba Everdene, a single, estate-owning woman determined to live as though she weren’t defined as a second class citizen bound to Victorian conventions and patriarchal expectations is one of this year’s best. But as with other Hardy novels, happiness and security are variable by class and misfortune with romance often falling victim to life’s paucity of assurances. As a modern woman driven by the sort of agency and self-confidence rarely depicted in period dramas, Bathsheba’s struggle to have it all comes at a cost, one that both Hardy understood in the 1870’s and one that may still resonate with contemporary viewers.

5 Great Movies You Probably Have Not Seen

Just kidding, some of you have likely seen a few of these little treasures buried deep within our movie collection. 

Eternity and a Day--A work of mesmerizing poetry about a dying man's struggle to reconcile his past while befriending a young boy living precariously on the streets of Greece.

The Actuality Dramas of Allan King--A weirdly affecting assortment of "reality-based" documentaries that touch on subjects like marriage, end of life care and a 1970's counter-culture commune in Canada.

Like Father Like Son--A film that asks the question, what would you do if your biological son had been switched at birth with another child from a family with lesser means? Gut gripping stuff.

The American Friend--Most know of Wim Wenders through his classic film Wings of Desire but there's a lot to like about this German/English language adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith story that stars Bruno Ganz and the always unhinged Dennis Hopper.

George Washington--A classic "indie" film set in the south that seems to be under-appreciated and unknown. It's a quirky coming of age drama that takes place in North Carolina over a single summer. A group of young kids are confronted  with tough choices as they attempt to grapple with a secret.   

10 Best French Films from the 1960's

I love making lists. Of course, these are simply opinions but I thought I'd try my hand at coming up with the 10 best films from France during the 1960's. It was a great decade for film-making with several prominent directors producing innovative masterpieces that continue to inspire.

1. Contempt--Brigitte Bardot and Jean-Luc Godard at the height of their talents and popularity came together in this gorgeously shot work that investigates the messy businesses of the film industry and desire. It features one of the most moving and melancholic scores (Theme of Camille by Georges Delerue) that you'll ever hear.

2. Au Hasard Balthazar--Though I love Robert Bresson's earlier films A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, this is my favorite of Bresson's work. I'm not sure suffering has been depicted both so beautifully and with such heartbreaking cruelty.

3. My Night at Maud's--Truffaut and Godard have gotten most of the ink as the two primary directors of the Nuevo Vague but Eric Rohmer's style and approach to subject matter and narrative is just as unique and just as innovative.

4. La Jette--The enigmatic Chris Marker's brilliant dystopian, tone poem (using only still photographs) was the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's film 13 Monkeys.

5. Last Year at Marienbad--Requiring of multiple viewings, this mesmerizing puzzle of a film continues to confound audiences with it's anti-linear narrative and unreliable narrators. If you thought that Memento, Upstream Color or Inception were confusing, check this out and have your mind be opened and scrambled. 

6. Playtime--A wordless masterpiece of absurdity and social criticism that highlighted Tati's questioning of the cool, sleek, dehumanizing nature of modernism and its architecture.

7. Pierre Le Fou--Godard's anarchic mash up of color, pastiche, politics, satire, and text reunites Godard with Jean Paul Belmondo (Breathless).

8. Army of Shadows--You simply have to have a Melville movie on this list given his track record for dark, noirish films that breathed new life into the crime thriller genre. Army of Shadows drew upon Melville's knowledge and experience of resistance fighters struggling against the Vichy and Nazi regimes during the war.

9. Jules and Jim--Following The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player, Francois Truffaut's portrait of a love triangle over the course of 25 years further cemented his reputation as one the best directors on the planet.

10.Le Trou-- Next to Bresson's A Man Escaped, arguably the best of the best of prison break-out films.  

Dido Elizabeth Lindsay

The movie Belle has been in our Blu-ray collection for a year now. I finally got curious enough to take it home and watch it. I’m glad I did. I learned enough from the movie to want to know the facts

Dido Elizabeth Lindsay, also known as Belle, was the great niece of William Murray, the First Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice. Her father was a naval officer and her mother was a slave in the West Indies. When she was just a girl her mother passed away so her father came and got her and entrusted her to his uncle. Belle became a companion to her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, who was living in her uncle’s home, also because her mother had passed away. Belle lived in the Lord Chief Justice’s home for three decades. 

According to most sources (including the movie), she had a generous allowance, spent time with the family but did not eat with them. There was even talk that she was accepted as a member of the family. According to (an online reference guide to African American history) and the movie, Belle, Dido’s presence might have had some influence on the way the Earl, the highest ranking judge in Great Britain, ruled in two of his cases. In the Somerset Case Mansfield ruled that English law did not sanction slavery and in the Zong Massacre Case he ruled for the insurer who refused to pay a ship’s captain for cargo lost when they purposely threw a number of slaves overboard.

The movie certainly made use of their poetic license. In the movie Dido received an inheritance from her father as well as an unlikely love story. There is speculation that her relationship with her uncle’s family was very close. She did receive a small inheritance from the judge and his wife along with her freedom papers. She married John Davinier, a French gentleman’s steward, the year her uncle past away. She and John had three children and lived a comfortable life.